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Viewpoint: Demystifying radiation - the nemesis of nuclear energy?
2018-9-12

Reports by the United Nations on ionizing radiation may prove crucial for a nuclear renaissance, Abel González told delegates at the World Nuclear Association Symposium being held in London this week.

Abel González speaking at the Symposium (Image: World Nuclear Association)

Many people (and their political representatives) seem to be generally sensitive about radiation attributable to nuclear power. Energy policymakers often recognise the many benefits of nuclear energy, which are so well underlined in World Nuclear Association’s Harmony programme. These include its contribution to a climate change solution. However, they usually fall silent when challenged about the issue of radiation and thus the sense that radiation is the archenemy of nuclear energy is being propagated around the world.

Recent reports from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) are challenging the commonly held views on radiation among the misinformed.

Radiation and the United Nations

A recent document issued by the United Nations Environmental Programme and UNSCEAR recognises that “although the production of electricity by using nuclear power is often controversial, in normal operation it contributes very little to global radiation exposure”. Notwithstanding this definitive statement, a review of the more relevant formal reporting of UNSCEAR includes:

1. As many as ten years ago, UNSCEAR estimated that public radiation exposure attributable to nuclear power generation was minute. Radiation exposure from nuclear power is several orders of magnitude lower than the exposures people normally experience from natural radiation sources, such as cosmic radiation and emissions from the many natural radioactive elements present in Earth since primordial times. Radiology and nuclear medicine used in hospitals expose patients to relatively high levels of radiation in comparison with nuclear power. In fact, UNSCEAR estimated that the global annual average radiation dose to the public attributable to the full nuclear fuel cycle was 1/10000 of that from other sources.

2. Following these estimates and in response to theoretical calculations of the health effects caused by low radiation exposures, UNSCEAR considered the attribution of health effects to different levels of exposure to ionizing radiation and reached, inter alia, the following conclusions:

  • Increases in the incidence of health effects cannot be attributed reliably to chronic exposure to radiation at levels that are typical of the global average background levels of radiation.
  • ​It does not therefore recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate the number of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels.
  • Increases in the incidence of hereditary effects among the human population cannot be attributed to radiation exposure.
  • Finally, while recognising that public health bodies need to allocate resources appropriately and that this may involve making projections of numbers of health effects for comparative purposes, UNSCEAR emphasised that: this method could be useful, provided it was applied consistently; uncertainties in the assessments were taken fully into account; and it were not inferred that the projected health effects were other than notional.

3. More recently, UNSCEAR has estimated radiation exposures attributable to the generation of electricity through different technologies to show the differences resulting from each technology. It concluded, inter alia, that:

  • ​Radiation exposures attributable to the generation of electricity are generally low in comparison with the exposure from other sources, such as natural or medical.
  • Notwithstanding, the larger radiation exposures due to electrical energy generation are not delivered by nuclear energy but mainly by coal and geothermal plants.
  • Surprisingly, the larger exposures due to the installation of electrical power plants are caused by the installation of solar and wind plants, which results from the use of rare earth minerals and estimates of occupational exposures for their mining.

These UNSCEAR conclusions, while placing radiation from nuclear energy in a proper perspective, still can be challenged. What about waste and accidents, people might retort!

On waste UNSCEAR has been definitive: proper disposal of the waste should not give rise to exposure of people even in the distant future. As for accidents, the variability of potential scenarios makes any estimates contentious and neither UNSCEAR, nor any other UN body, has a mandate to estimate and compare the consequences of accidents arising from the production of electricity.

If the main concern is the number of casualties that an accident may produce among members of the public, hydroelectricity is far ahead as a source of electricity - collapsed dams have had catastrophic consequences for human life. If the main consideration is the lives of workers, then coal mining accidents predominate. If the major worry is impact, then oil and gas spills are the major culprits. But if the salient apprehension is the presence of radiation, then nuclear accidents are certainly the first to be considered.

UNSCEAR has produced comprehensive ad hoc reports on two of the three accidents that have occurred in the nuclear industry with radiation consequences. For Three Mile Island, the exposure was so minute that this was not even included in the UNSCEAR conclusions. For Chernobyl, UNSCEAR reported that the major radiation impact was on the emergency workers responding to the accident and on children who were fed contaminated milk, but among the general public to date there has been no consistent evidence of any other health effect that can be attributed to radiation exposure. For Fukushima, UNSCEAR reported that: no radiation-related deaths or acute diseases have been observed among the workers and general public exposed to radiation from the accident; the doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low; and no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among those exposed.

The realities of radiation I have described are not speculation by the nuclear industry, but are based on the scientific findings of UNSCEAR, which have been commended in formal resolutions from the UN General Assembly, whose members comprise 193 sovereign states.

The time is therefore ripe to ask: Are policymakers aware of the facts about radiation? Is the general public informed of the evidence reported by UNSCEAR? Shouldn’t the nuclear industry being doing all it can to debunk the myths about radiation?

González is a senior adviser with the Argentine Nuclear Regulatory Authority, Argentine representative at UNSCEAR, a member of the Commission of Safety Standards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a member of the Argentine delegation to IAEA's General Conference and Board of Governors.

  
 
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